Producing the goods was never in the script

Reporter: Martyn Torr
Date published: 04 July 2011

Martyn Meets...Ken Stephinson
The first in a two-part feature on an unlikely broadcasting pioneer

SITTING by the side of the Trans-Pennine rail line in the beautiful Saddleworth sunshine, drinking coffee from my very own personal cafetiere in the company of two ever-so-gentle and kindly people, I felt I was intruding. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Ken and Marjorie Stephinson were the perfect hosts. I was even made welcome by Pancho Gonzales, the supercilious Burmese cat who patrols his domain like a haughty squire.

Before my visit, I had heard much about the celebrity inhabitants of the former Saddleworth Station, off Wool Road between Uppermill, Dobcross and Diggle. But after two hours in their company such an adjective, though clearly accurate, doesn’t sit comfortably on their collective shoulders.

Each has enjoyed a stellar career in broadcasting — independent of the other — that would easily fill many a page in this newspaper and, judging by the myriad of anecdotes I had the pleasure of hearing — each accompanied by a beguiling, charming chuckle — not a word would go unread.

As I drove away and left them to their idyll I couldn’t help thinking of the biographies and autobiographies currently flooding the book market and thinking here are two people worthy of greater, wider exposure — though it would take a wordsmith much more talented than I to do justice to their majestic careers.

Goodness me, where to begin doing justice to the life and times of a proud Mackem from Sunderland who incongruously met and married a well-spoken teacher from Bath. There’s a Limerick in there somewhere . . .

That they were destined to meet and become lifelong partners was obvious; I was happy to admit my envy at their endearing shared love. This shone through every facet of our time together and forms the bond which transcends all of their individual and shared creative achievements.

Ken made his name as a director and producer at the BBC, when the corporation was the heartbeat of public life in Great Britain and not the seemingly chaotic monolith (that’s my view, not that of Ken and Marjorie) that today finds itself in competition with massed broadcast competition.

On leaving the RAF on completion of his National Service, Ken took a job in his home town as a cinema projectionist and so began his first love affair, life behind the lens.

In contrast to Marjorie, then Lofthouse, who was to blossom initially on the radio and later as a presenter in front of the lens.

But not once was one of those lenses directed by Ken, well, not until they retired and set up their own independent production business. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Tyne-Tees Television was set up in 1958 Ken applied for a job in their film-handling department.

From film handling Ken ventured into editing — “no-one can claim to be a serious producer or director unless they understand editing,” he reasons — and began directing in the late 1960s.

“I was one of 2,000 applicants and I landed one of only four jobs,” he chuckled as another train rolled by in the background. By now I was totally immune to their passing and later in our talk Marjorie, who had her back to track, remarked “Oh, here comes a goods train” and a slow-moving, snaking line of rolling stock eased past my view as if it was the most natural event in the world.

Ken’s move to Tyne-Tees Television was the making of the man and the start of a quite remarkable, astonishing career. “In those days,” he confided, “No-one knew what they were doing so we made it up as we went along.

“There was no-one around to say ‘we don’t do that’ because we had never done it before.”

From an impenetrably deep well of anecdotes he recalled working in those early days with Syd Waddell, now the voice of darts on Sky Sports.

Razor sharp, enthusiastic and literally bursting with ideas, Syd, like Ken, was in his early 20s and both were keen to make their mark.

They hit upon the idea of laying music over a news item and because there was no-one to tell them otherwise, they simply did it.

The “it” in question was to change the face of broadcast news for ever — but almost ended the careers of the young tyros.

“I filmed the annual Durham Miners’ Gala and parade and Syd broadcast the footage with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas belting out ‘Dancing in the Streets’ in the background.

“It worked a treat, we had footage of the Prime Minister Harold Wilson with his pipe, swaying to the music as the procession flowed by. But of course the PM was listening to one of the colliery bands, not our track,” recalled Ken.

The next day the duo were summoned into the presence of the Head of News and left in no doubt that their pioneering production had not pleased either the governing Labour Party or the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

“Your jobs are on the line,” they were told in no uncertain terms.

Twenty-four hours later they returned to learn their fate and were told they had been lucky because a canvass of fellow producers, directors and broadcasters was supportive of their innovation.

“Our fellow professionals kept us in our jobs,” remembered Ken, who added: “We were told to steer clear of serious news subjects, but we had made a mark and set a standard that has endured to this day.”

Ken then moved to the BBC and one of his first programmes was to film a documentary about Radio Durham.

“The bosses rather liked the idea of an independent television company making a film about an independent BBC offshoot and I was allowed to make the film.”

It was there he met a woman who was to become a true icon of the British broadcasting scene — Kate Adie, a Sunderland girl who was to go on to broadcast from war-torn hotspots across the globe.

“A remarkable broadcaster,” Ken mused in his understated way, one of many charms about this fascinating man.

Unbeknown to Ken at the time, a young teacher from Bath, who had taken to working at a school in the North-East through a relationship formed at college, was just beginning a broadcasting career with the station, but their paths were not to cross until many years later.

Marjorie Lofthouse, whose single-parent mother banned her from chasing a career on the stage, was thus denied her a place at RADA.

“I was cross, of course I was,” said Marjorie, who instead took up a place at teacher-training college in Stafford while retaining a keen interest in acting through her amateur drama club associations.

On relocating to Sunderland she joined the local drama club where, as fate would have it, Ken’s first wife was also a keen member.

Ken obstinately refused to get involved — his technical expertise would have been invaluable — but one night he relented, met Marjorie and suddenly took to attending more often. Marjorie had been invited by Radio Durham to voice-over a production on air and was then invited back for more work. So began a broadcasting career that was to embrace such iconic and enduring productions as “Women’s Hour” and “Pebble Mill”.

From weekend work in Durham, Marjorie moved to Radio Metro — after giving up her teaching career — and this set Ken and Marjorie on a path which was to lead, ultimately, to serene joy and happiness.

But there were many bridges to cross. Ken was relocating to work in Oxford Road, Manchester, for the Beeb and needed somewhere to live that would also sit comfortably with Marjorie’s burgeoning career, which was now extending into three days a week broadcasting from Leeds. He found the former Saddleworth Station and was keen to move in.

Around this time Ken was asked to produce a programme on railways but couldn’t settle on a presenter until he heard former Monty Python man Michael Palin announce on radio that he ‘didn’t have any hobbies but an obsession... with railways’.

So Ken had his man... and his home... and his new partner.

Or did he? Does life ever run that smoothly?

Find out in part two next Monday.